Failure = Improvement

Charter schools are about as good on average as public schools. But because they can fail, they provide opportunity for improvement that public schools don’t. Without failure, it’s much harder to generate improvement.

The Freakonomics podcast recently featured this telling analogy: What if restaurants were run like public schools? Imagine if you were required to dine at your local government-run canteen, with dishes determined by a citywide restaurant Superintendent, with a no-firing policy for staff?

Sounds like a bad Yakov Smirnoff joke. “In Soviet Russia, restaurant eats you!”. We instinctively realize that restaurants like Gramercy Tavern should succeed, while Joe’s Yak Butter Hut should go out of business. Failure ensures survival of the tastiest.

Yet while few would support the idea of a restaurant Superintendent, we allow the same crazy system to educate our children.

I guess we consider our seared ahi salad more important than the future of our country.

7 thoughts on “Failure = Improvement

  1. The Soviet joke is closer then you think, we have the equivalent of one soup kitchen to feed whole cities. It can't be allowed to close because we never allowed competition to grow, at least not big enough to handle the spill over.

    Ideal would be for schools to shrink size and grow in numbers. I've always thought homeschooling should grow into mini schools instead of factory producing education.

  2. The counterargument made to this is frankly rather bizarre: because children are so darn important, formal failure isn't allowed. In practice, this means that actual failure becomes a permanent state.

  3. Graudrakon,

    I agree that schools should shrink in size and grow in numbers. Experimentation and diversity are the key to innovation and growth!


    Again, could not agree more. "Failure is not an option" sounds good in a movie, but it doesn't always work so well in real life.

    One of my favorite authors once wrote, "Death before dishonor sounds good, but eventually everyone ends up either dead or forsworn."

  4. Eric

    Great post on one of the crucial issues of our time (even if most people are more focused on their ahi).

    In the same vein, this is the best presentation I've seen on our 19th Century/Dickensian approach to education:

  5. The thing everyone seems to forget is that public schools are not businesses. You don't pay (directly) to send your kids to school. Sure, your tax dollars pay, but there is a middle-man the size of Texas between your wallet and the schools, and most importantly, you don't have a choice.

    Likewise, schools, unlike restaurants, can't kick out unruly patrons and they don't have to provide expensive extra service for those who won't/can't/don't eat the food.
    Schools WOULD be infinitely better if they were run like private business, and they already are, they're called private schools and they are almost universally better than public schools. The catch is, only some people can afford them.

    Here is an experiment no one talks about. Give a public school the same $ per student that the great private school down the street gets and see how much better the school becomes, without having to fail even once.

    I'm not saying public schools are great or that funding is the only answer, but pretending that you can run a takes all comers for free institution like a business is silly. At best, you can compare them to non-profits.

  6. The problem is, even with food it's hard to judge. I like McDonalds, my parents love Chinese cuisine. Who's right?

    The same difficulty applies to evaluating whether a school is successful or not. If we use test scores as the criteria, schools may turn away less brilliant kids, or cram them with the sole aim of achieving high scores. If we use the happiness of the kids as the criteria, I could get full marks by giving them ice cream every day.

    So how do we judge whether a school is a success or not?

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